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35 Years of Humanities
for the Public

Amelia Diehl

On a windy winter night on February 22, 2022, poet and lawyer Reginald Dwayne Betts sat across from Erika George, director of the Tanner Humanities Center, as she asked him direct questions about his path out of prison. Betts, who was incarcerated at 16 years old and went on to become a critically acclaimed writer, Yale Law School graduate, and a MacArthur “genius” fellow, laughed and said, “You’re starting with a hard question.”

Without missing a beat, George replied, “I don’t know that it gets any easier.”

Over the rest of the night, Betts spoke freely to an enraptured audience, expanding on his journey as a writer and advocate and the role of poetry in healing from the violence of incarceration. Next to him was a replica of a bookshelf. In addition to writing—his fourth book, Felon, was released in 2019— he also founded the organization Freedom Reads to distribute libraries inside jails and prisons.

Even on a wide stage, the conversation evoked an intimate conversation in a living room. After the talk, audience members flocked to microphones to ask questions.

This kind of open and intellectual banter was characteristic of the kind of spaces the Tanner Humanities Center creates. Since its founding in 1988, the center has provided the University of Utah and surrounding communities a myriad of opportunities to exchange complex ideas, ask hard questions and share meaning and solutions—all for free and open to the public. Betts’ event was part of the center’s Author Meets Readers series, one of many programs they offer, among its three focuses of academic research, public outreach, and educational enrichment.


    This year, the center is celebrating its 35th anniversary. Originally founded as the Utah Humanities Center, it was endowed in 1995 through the family foundation of Obert C. Tanner (1904-1993), and renamed for Obert and his wife Grace. Tanner was an entrepreneur, philanthropist, he also taught philosophy at the University of Utah for more than 25 years. His global employee recognition company, O.C. Tanner, produced the medals for the 2002 Olympics. His vision extended beyond the University of Utah. In 1978, he helped found the Tanner Lectures on Human Values, which brings leaders to speak at nine different universities around the world. Aimed at better understanding human behavior and values, Tanner said at the time of founding the series, “This understanding may be pursued for its own intrinsic worth, but it may also eventually have practical consequences for the quality of personal and social life.”

    George, the Samuel D. Thurman Professor of Law at the S.J. Quinney College of Law, continues to build on this mission. “The place of the humanities in a top research university must be a prominent one,” she said. “The Tanner Humanities Center is the both the public face of humanities in Utah and a place for facilitating humanities research and scholarship on campus.”

    Before George began as director in 2019, history professor Bob Goldberg had led the center since 2006. He broadened the center’s goals to include more free public programs and lectures, including launching the World Leaders Lecture Forum, which became the center’s biggest annual event. The inaugural lecture was given by Ehud Barak, former prime minister of Israel.

“We weren’t sure what to expect,” said Beth James, associate director of the center since 2003. “But the turnout was incredible and the evening dinner event attracted a lot of new donors to the center.”

    The center has hosted writers, theorists, historians, artists, Nobel Prize winners, Pulitzer Prize winners, and other leaders, including Margaret Attwood, Tony Kushner, Spike Lee, Isabel Allende, Michael Chabon, Zadie Smith, Maya Lin, Sandra Cisneros, Stanley Nelson, Nobel Peace Prize recipient Shirin Ebadi of Iran, President of Colombia Cesar Gaviria, former President of Doctors Without Borders James Orbinski, Prime Minister of Australia Julia Gillard, former CIA Director John Brennan, former President of Mexico Vicente Fox, Richard Bushman, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, David Campbell, and Kathleen Flake.

    Since 2010, the center has also screened the National Theatre Live, a broadcast of London’s Royal National Theatre productions. Put on pause during the pandemic, these events have consistently been immensely popular for the center, with proceeds benefitting their K-12 theatre and educational outreach program.

    Through the years, the center has provided a vital space for the public to gather during significant cultural and political moments.

Humanities offer us ways to think critically and creatively about our culture and society so that we can better comprehend different ways of being in the world and “ enrich our lives through learning.

    One particularly well-attended event was Anita Hill’s Tanner Lecture on Human Values, as the #MeToo movement was growing in 2018. Planned months in advance, the date happened to fall at the same time of the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanaugh, which drew many parallels to Clarence Thomas’ appointment, during which Hill took the stand to speak up on sexual inequality and harassment.

    “The event was a massive draw and Ms. Hill was able to speak directly to the current events,” James recalls. The day after the talk, gender studies students joined Hill in watching the testimony of sexual assault survivor Christine Blasey Ford in the Tanner Center Jewel Box, and Hill led a discussion.

    “While the timing was purely coincidental, we felt honored to host Anita Hill at a time when everyone was riveted by the Supreme Court hearings,” James said.

Last Updated: 4/12/23